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Pooping in China: Monthly reflections on living, teaching, and moving bowels abroad
By Brandon Jeune
Editor's Note: Brandon Jeune is a 25-year-old graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University. He teaches English to children in China. He writes "Pooping in China" and distributes it to friends and family as an email more or less every month. He has given us permission to serialize the emails here. Because we just relaunched our website, we're hurrying to catch up and post all of the emails Brandon's sent over the past few months.
March is here, Spring is edging her way in to warm the frozen corners of our wintry world, the skies are alive with the flocks returning from their pilgrimages to the southlands…and I’ve already broken my new year’s resolution.
I saw a penis.
Let me revise that: I saw a shitload of penises.
Now that I’ve established a nice, penis-themed framing device for this letter, let’s take a step back. If any of you still have your invisible imagination cap left over from kindergarten, take a moment to retrieve it from that dusty back corner of your mind’s closet, underneath the Creepy Crawlers oven and all those scattered Pogs (for my older readers, I’m not going to claim I know the appropriate references for your generation, though I’d wager you stashed your cap underneath your mind’s elementary school desk, as opposed to the closet, to keep it safe from all the impending Soviet nuclear strikes). Got it? Good. Let’s put on our imagination caps together and pretend we’re stepping back in time, back, back, way into the distant past.
The year: 2012. The month: December. The Newtown tragedy is still fresh in our minds, the fiscal cliff still looms ahead, and while we know all those Mayan doomsday prophecies are b.s., on a certain level we can’t help but wonder…what if? All in all, things are rather dark.
But amongst the darkness, a glimmer of light; a moment of brilliance to reassure us all that this, too, shall pass; a blossoming romance.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m the one dude at work who never has any clue what’s going on around him. This is partly the fault of my coworkers, who never clue me in to what’s going on around me, and admittedly partly my own fault, considering how often I find myself daydreaming about pizza.
My boss, Joyce, is a dual Chinese-Canadian citizen, and in order to retain the privileges thereof, has to spend a certain amount of time in Canada every year. So about two or three weeks after I arrived, she left for Canada, with these parting words: “If things go well here, I’ll be back in April. If things don’t go well, I’ll be back in January.”
On a Friday afternoon in mid-December, Nick mentioned in passing, “Oh, Joyce is coming back tomorrow.”
Uh-oh. Things must be going way worse than I thought. Is this because I pooped my pants? It was a one-time thing, I swear!
“She’s getting married in Changsha on Sunday.”
Oh, whew. Okay, so nothing’s—wait, she’s getting married? I didn’t even know she had a boyfriend.
“And we’re all going to the wedding.”
I’d like to tell you I’m exaggerating this timeline for humorous effect, but I’m really not. This is just how things seem to go. On the off-chance I’m told something important in advance, I’m not told very far in advance. Two days seems to be about the max. Not that I’d have any good reason to protest. “Hmm, a wedding? Well…kiiiind of late notice. Let me check my schedule… yeah, see, Sunday I’m supposed to be eating Oreos and reading manga scans online, followed by a nap that runs way too long…followed by a disorienting wakeup around 2 a.m., at which point I’ll have to groggily pick broken Oreo bits out from between my laptop keys…yeah, sorry. No wedding for me, I’m booked up tight.”
I think my coworkers all being aware of how much of a life I don’t have may be part of the problem. ‘Hey, so we’ve got all these events and important matters coming up, but… no reason to tell Brandon, right? Because, come on, it’s not like HE’S gonna have anything to do anyway.’
(Side note on the Oreos: I’ve always been sort of ambivalent towards them in the past. But on a recent and particularly hungry trip through the supermarket, I noticed the vast array of flavors on offer for the Chinese market (Green tea! Strawberry! Orange cream!), and made an impulse buy. I can say with certainty that the new flavors are a genuine improvement, but unfortunately, the bonding agents in the cream make it literally impossible to pull the damn thing apart and eat it properly…it’s like Nabisco wanted to pull in this new demographic by replicating the difficulty of escaping a Chinese finger trap in cookie form. It’d honestly be easier to open a pickle jar slathered in Vaseline than a sleeve of Chinese Oreos…I mean, Jesus, what are these things stuffed with, horse semen and concrete?)
So I went to Joyce’s wedding, and it was strangely, surprisingly, unforgettably…regular. A mid-sized affair in a hotel ballroom with an arch and flower petals and lots of dry mounted photo prints of the bride and groom hung up about the walls. But a few key differences warrant attention. Firstly, the spread. It was schlangferngnmm.
Now, if you’re unfamiliar with schlangferngnmm, that’s because it’s a word of my own invention. See, over the last six months, I’ve been presented with some really, really fucking good meals. But in attempting to describe said meals to others after the fact, I’ve frequently found myself running headlong into the linguistic limits of the English language. My ten point scale of goodness has expanded to a one-hundred point spectrum, replete with J-curves, logarithms, powers of ten, and other half-remembered ideas from High School math that I’m now unable to correctly utilize. And still it falls short; every 100x10^8 lunch requires an expansion to a 100x10^9 scale when an even better dinner inevitably follows. Emphatic terms, like ‘delicious,’ ‘delectable’, ‘a mouth orgy of flavors setting off a chain reaction of taste bud orgasms’ are worn out, like an old pair of shoes that have trudged through gravel and across concrete until the soles are worn as thin as the walls of an inflated balloon, and also that are a size too small, so your feet are painfully cramped up inside anyway. Now is that shoe simile appropriate, considering I was already working with a math theme? Eh, not really. Did it go on for too long? Absolutely!
So in conclusion: schlangferngnmm. Sure, it may sound like the name for a penis enlargement pump sold at Ikea. But in actuality, it’s the sound of palatal bliss; the most natural, primitively honest response to the host asking how you feel about the meal. With a mouth crammed full of pork dumplings, potatoes, and glutinous rice, you speak before deciding what to say, and choke out: schlangferngnmm.
Normally when I receive a wedding invitation with a ‘chicken or beef’ checkbox, I simply try to imagine which one I’ll be less miserable eating, and hope that at least there’ll be a free bar. Honestly, I don’t know if this is a common problem, or if I just have friends and family with particularly bad taste in caterers, but in my experience, wedding dinner entrées are drier than a desert armadillo’s vagina telling Stephen Wright jokes. But Chinese wedding dinners…hoo-eee. Fuckin’ schlangferngnmm.
‘How long is he gonna go on with this thread?,' you suddenly find yourself mumbling. ‘That’s two paragraphs already…and now here’s a third.’ You quickly scroll down and realize how much there’s still left to read. ‘Geeze, what does he think, I have all day to sit around stumbling through his exhaustive run-ons and pitiful attempts to make ‘schlangferngnmm’ happen? I’ve got shit to do!’
What do you do?
To stop reading now, go to Paragraph 21.
To keep on reading, go to Paragraph 22.
Good luck with your shit.
In addition to the food, the wedding favors here are also decidedly more badass. In the U.S. I’d typically sit down to a white doily full of jordan almonds, but here in China? A bottle of baijiu, a bottle of wine, and a pack of cigarettes. We-hell, alriiiight…time to party.
The ceremony itself was a pretty standard affair. Heartfelt speeches by the best man and maid of honor; the bride’s father presenting her to her husband-to-be. During a particularly long and emotive speech by the groom’s brother, I felt myself misting up. I always cry at weddings. The woman next to me noticed and asked if I understood what he was saying. “Not a clue,” I said, wiping my eyes. (May or may not be true.)
After that, it was the traditional filling of the champagne glass tower by the bride and groom. Instead of cutting the cake (there was no cake), they arranged fluted champagne glasses into a tower and filled the top one until it overflowed into the glasses underneath, creating a beautiful sparkling waterfall of alcohol. Now I know I’m constantly comparing and contrasting social practices and whatnot between my home and host countries, as if I’m qualified to judge, but here I’m truly at a loss as to which one is better; torn, as it were, between my love for desserts and my love for booze. I imagine that if I ever tie the knot, I’ll compromise by pouring a beer over ten stacked cakes.
But in the midst of this moment, I suddenly heard a loud bubbling sound burst through the speakers, rising in tone and rapidity: blub-blub-blu-blu-blu-blublublublblb. After a moment of disorientation, I realized what was happening. The DJ was playing bubbling sound effects over the P.A. system.
Apparently, this guy felt every major event in the ceremony required an auditory complement. Because he didn’t stop there. During “the kiss,” we found the scene accompanied by loud, exaggerated kiss-y sounds from the speakers. And on the bride and groom’s walk back down the aisle together, pre-programmed generic cheers erupted all around us.
Now the bad wedding DJ is a bit of a cliché, but holy shit. I mean, holy shit. This guy was on another level. This was a WEDDING, and he was treating it like he’s on the radio with fuckin’ Ira and the Douche, filling airtime with wacky sound effects and goosing his co-host to entertain all the Gen X-ers on their morning commute.
The rest of the afternoon flew by in a drunken haze. A nice, calm, buzzed haze for me, and a wild, trashy haze for most of the others. That place got buckwild. By the end of the reception, one dude was passed out at a table, the groom was hanging on my shoulder and giving me broken English bro love, and two of my coworkers were crying.
Nick got so drunk he couldn’t leave the hotel, let alone make the trip back home, so I stayed in the city with him to make sure he didn’t die. Worked out nicely though, because first of all, he didn’t die, and second of all, we got to spend the next day, New Year’s Eve, in a city much more bustling and interesting than our own.
All in all, New Year’s Eve was a pretty tame night, though the light displays were impressive and quite beautiful. As an opener for the midnight countdown, the city square booked a Chinese screamo band. Screamo turns out to be a pretty nice representation for the commonalities among mankind, in that its terribleness seems to transcend cultural boundaries. At the end of a truly awful set, the audience was noticeably underwhelmed. No one clapped, no one cheered, no one moved. But then, suddenly, all around me, a rising wall of sound. Deafening applause! Cries for an encore, rising into one uniform chant! And still, no one was moving. Once again, didn’t take long to figure out where the sounds were originating: the speakers.
These dudes were playing their own applause.
Not only that, they were playing their own calls for an encore.
At first, the singer made to walk off stage. He made a playful show of passive resistance. ‘No, no, you guys,’ he smiled. ‘That’s all we’ve…nah, nah, COME on you guys, we…oh…oh, OH, alright! We’ll play two more!” And they played two more.
At the end, I was really tempted to approach the band backstage. “I know a DJ you guys need to meet.”
A few days after returning to Loudi, Joyce took us out for a celebratory dinner at a steakhouse. And actually I just realized that this timeline doesn’t make sense, because she was on her honeymoon at that point. Was it before the wedding? Was it more recent than I remember it being? Is this steakhouse located in a strange limbo zone of sorts, where the laws of space time do not apply? Who knows. Good thing we still have those imagination caps on!
Whatever the case, this was a big expenditure, and quite a nice gesture, because steak in China don’t come cheap. That being said, I’ve gotta say…steak in China also don’t come good.
Going in, I was skeptical, but hopeful. Steak isn’t very common here, but hey… this place is covered in portraits of steers and kitschy cowboy-themed knick-knacks and certainly LOOKS like a standard steakhouse…so maybe they’ll get the food right too.
My first clue that I was sorely mistaken came shortly after ordering. The waiter asked me how I’d like my steak. I told him medium rare. Nick sat next to me, and ordered his: well-done. The waiter took the rest of the orders, and went back to the kitchen.
Not five minutes later, he was back, platters in hand. I thought: no way that’s our food. But he came to our table, and placed the platters in front of us. And I thought: no way that’s food.
You can’t make a steak in five minutes. Hell, you can’t make a cup of Easy-Mac in five minutes, if you factor in the cooling time. And even if you could… you can’t make both a medium rare and a well-done steak in the same amount of time. One’s gonna be way undercooked, or one’s gonna be way overcooked, and more likely, both are gonna be terrible.
So I’d be pretty reluctant to eat a five-minute steak. Thankfully, what the waiter brought us weren’t steaks. Yet while I can confidently say what they weren’t, I’m still at a loss as to what they were. But perhaps it will help if we imagine a quick hypothetical scenario: You’re a parent with an eight month old baby, or maybe an eleven month old, or, I don’t know, at whatever age babies can eat chicken mcnuggets, that’s how old your baby is. (I actually googled that to find out, but only found bunches of argumentative message board threads by bored housewives, and couldn’t stand to sift through all that shit for the best answer).
So you’ve got your baby there in a high chair, trying to get it to eat chicken mcnuggets for the first time. But the kid isn’t having it; the taste is new, and weird, and on average, babies have to be introduced the savory taste around thirteen times before they begin to accept it (although I’m reluctant to call a mcnugget ‘savory’). So he just whines and cries and drools all over these nuggets, and then begins smashing them with his little balled fists until they become one single breaded patty of mashed chicken flesh goo. Suddenly, you hear a knock at the front door, and your wife/husband calls from the living room: “Honey! Your boss is here!”
Oy vey! Your boss! You invited him over for dinner tonight, and you completely forgot! You haven’t prepared ANYTHING! And he’s deciding who to give the promotion to THIS WEEK! Egads, what’re you gonna do!?!?
At this point you remember that you’re also a Jedi in this hypothetical situation, and can try out your Jedi mind trick powers of persuasion. So you look at the drooly mess in front of your baby, remember your boss is a pretty big dick anyway, and get an idea.
“Let ‘em in, honey!” You say, starting to grin. “Dinner’s alllllmost ready.” Cue the maniacal hand wringing.
Your boss comes in, and you lead him to the table. “Right here, Mr. Palpatine… how are you? How was traffic? Can I get you something to drink?”
Amidst your small talk, you surreptitiously slide the mcnugget patty onto a plate and put it in the microwave. Bleep- bleepbleep. Whirrrr. Five minutes later, you pull out the plate and place it in front of your boss.
It looks like what it is: a microwaved patty of mashed mcnugget and drool.
He grimaces. “What is this?”
You do a quick Jedi hand wave. “This is a steak.”
You repeat it once more. “A steak. Medium rare, just like you like it.”
“Right…a steak.” And he believes it, at least enough to take a bite.
(Star Wars fans will likely note that you’d have to be a Jedi of pretty impressive stature to pass a Jedi mind trick off on The Emperor. I’d divulge more details to clear this up, but honestly, I don’t want to be the guy responsible for publicly spoiling the plot of the upcoming Episode VII, so we’ll just leave it at that.)
That’s kind of what it was like eating this thing. It looked and tasted like a microwaved mashed mess of low quality meat manhandled by a baby (…babyhandled?), but the guy in front of me kept saying it was a steak, so… I guess it was a steak. But it wasn’t a very good one.
Moral of the story: don’t order steak in China. In retrospect, it seems a fairly obvious moral.
And one last note: some of you may find that whole scenario ill fitting, considering mcnuggets are chicken and steaks are beef. To that, I say: at certain low levels of quality, all meat chalks up to the same thing anyway. And if you don’t believe me, just ask any of the Europeans who’ve been chowing down on horse burgers for the past few months.
Moving on past the New Year and closer to the present, we find ourselves approaching Winter Pageant #2. Last month I related the details of my Kindergarten pageant, but two weeks later, Greenwell held one as well. This second one was a LOT more work. As opposed to one class, I had eleven. Granted, I was only in charge of four, with all us teachers splitting responsibilities, but damned if that wasn’t tough enough. Joyce was adamant about making this pageant an event for the ages, and in addition to awards ceremonies and games, she wanted an elaborate performance by every class. So in the weeks leading up to the pageant, I found myself coordinating and teaching pre-chosen English song medleys and dances, a Chinese play, and Gangnam Style.
I can’t dance, and up until that point, was only vaguely familiar with Gangnam Style. I heard it blaring out of storefronts and the windows of passing cars, and knew it had something to do with a horse trot, but that was it. I’d never sat down and watched the video. I told this to my coworkers, and in response they handed me a thumb drive with the video on it. “Watch it, and then you can teach it.”
Right, easy as that, yeah? Just watch and teach! It’s all so simple, when you really think about it.
Oh, as a side note, I thought some of you might be interested to know about the course in neurosurgery and hospital best practices I’ll be teaching next month. Because I just finished watching Season 8 of "Grey’s Anatomy." And damn all I can say is draammaaaaaaaa.
So I tried to teach Gangnam Style. Mostly it was just me stumbling in front of a room and meekly suggesting “So you hop like this…I think…” while the kids interrupted “No, you’re doing it wrong” and danced on their own. “Yep, so…I’ll just let you guys handle this one, then.”
Worse yet was the Chinese play. At first, Tiny handed me a script all in Chinese, and told me to direct the kids along.
“Uhh…I can’t…understand this.”
But she found me a translated version quickly enough. I skimmed through it, and found myself with the same problem.
“Uhh…I…STILL can’t understand this.”
And you’re about to see why. For your enjoyment, I’ve included a brief sample of said play below:
OK Top Club
Harry: Our father, mother, and your father, and mother, go to visit, we will play with Chinese BOY, GIRL.
Xiao Shen: Why do they say BAOZI and GEZI?
Niu Ge: Shh, okay, let’s play together!
Xiao Shen, Hong Mei, Na Na: Ah? Haha!
Niu Ge: Why do I change myself? Go! That is our park, so fun! Let’s go to the park.
Mary: I can’t take my bags.
Harry: Me too.
Liz: Me more.
Xiao Shen: You just know I’m so tired, why did you take so many things? Now begin to speak, excuse me, this is lamp for danger, my grandpa’s children heard my grandpa grew up in China, he says China is so poor, no power at night. When you go out at night you meet the big bad wolf. What you said is a foreigner place, hahaha, our natural places are so beautiful, we make beauty in the garden. TV, game machine, telephone, computer, refrigerator, lamp…
Harry, Mary, Liz: How about it?
Xiao Shen: It’s useful, for playing games.
Niu Ge, Xiao Shen, Hong Mei, Na Na: Hahaha.
Mary: This means unusable? The road has night lights, this lamp, I don’t take it.
Niu Ge: What’s this?
Harry: It’s some water from England, I’m sorry, my grandma grew up in China, she says the places in China so beautiful, if you want to drink you must take it by yourself, you take so many bottles, we come here, and everywhere is VERY GOOD.
Yeah, I wasn’t sure either. Thankfully Tiny had a video recording of a past performance, which helped me to get a handle on the play’s logistics.
It began with a few Chinese children standing around making puns, when suddenly, three foreigners arrived! “Who are you!?” The Chinese students asked.
“I’m Mary! I’m from America!” called a young girl, trotting into view. She wore a platinum blonde wig, an American flag dress, and enough makeup to last Joan Rivers for a month. As amusing as such blatant stereotyping was, the image of this little Chinese girl all gussied up and made to look Caucasian had an unsettling, almost inhuman feel to it, like an American Girl doll come to life…and sold into prostitution.
“I’m Harry! I’m from Europe!” said the next, and out waddled a boy in full leprechaun garb, complete with a green short-shorts/suspenders combo pulled up past his nipples.
These stereotypes did nothing to prepare me for what happened next.
“I’m Liz! I’m from Africa!” And out came Liz.
My jaw dropped. “Oh-my-god….”
Tiny and the others looked at me. “What?”
All I could do was shake my head, and point to the television screen.
The girl was in full blackface. Hell, it was basically blackbody. They had slathered her in the stuff, until every inch of her arms, hands, legs, and neck were all equally covered. But with her scrunched Chinese face, she looked less like an accurate representation of an African, and more like one of the California Raisins. Not to mention the afro wig, big golden hoop earrings, and giant multicolored dress that hung about her like a tent. It was like seeing every racist Civil War-era caricature brought to life.
The children danced, and sang, and talked about wolves and bottled water and whatever the hell else was going on in that script. When the video came to an end, Tiny looked at me. “So…?”
“So…I…think I’m gonna need a hand with this one.”
For two weeks straight, I officially hated my job. Whether it was trying to keep pace with an incomprehensible play script or trying to perfect Gangnam Style, every day was downright exhausting. Like I mentioned before, we split up the classes, and then expanded said classes into three-hour blocks. Let me repeat that: THREE-HOUR BLOCKS. Have you ever danced for three hours straight? Well, okay, likely you have, and I have too… but usually a few gin and tonics are involved, and even the worst clubs don’t play Gangnam Style on a three hour loop (actually, in case you’re interested, I did find the worst club in China last fall: a seedy “foreigner” bar nestled in an alley above a KTV/brothel that, as I walked in, began playing a techno version of the “Pizza Hut, a Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut” jingle you may remember from the summer camps of your youth. And yes, everyone was doing the corresponding dance. It was fucking terrifying, if only because I was convinced I had accidentally crossed some threshold into an alternate dimension).
Have you ever tried to keep kids motivated for three hours? Hell, have you ever tried to keep ADULTS motivated for three hours? There’s a reason most movies clock in at just under two. To justify anything more, you’ve really gotta pull out all the stops to keep your audience’s attention. James Cameron knows this, which is why he shrewdly had Kate Winslet take her top off in Titanic’s second half to tide us all over until the ship sank. I mean, I could install an Xbox 360 and a soft-serve ice cream dispenser inside a fully-functional roller coaster, load it up with comic books and toy ponies, and direct my class inside…and I guarantee it wouldn’t take three hours for one of them to tell me they’re bored.
Now I had felt like a slave driver before, when forcing my Kindergarten class through “I’m a Little Teapot” again and again, but man oh man, this time I felt more like…well…I’m actually having a hard time thinking of something twice as bad as a slave driver. Maybe a set of conjoined twins, both of whom are slave drivers? I guess that’s what I felt like.
If it turns out I’m wrong about everything and there is a heaven, and upon my death God is feeling particularly merciful and beams me up for an interview, I’d imagine what I did last month will continue to haunt me. As I approach those pearly gates, St. Peter will eye me over his spectacles, crack open his giant tome, thumb through the soul directories and find my name. “Hmmm…BRANDON, here we are. Well, says here you were an atheist, THAT’S certainly not a preferable trait…but you also volunteered during one of your college spring breaks, so I think that sort of evens it out, now doesn’t it?”
It takes me a moment to register what he’s saying. “…Seriously? That’s…that’s all it takes?”
“Well sure! I don’t know what they’ve been telling you down there, but we’re actually pretty lenient around here.”
“Oh, yes. Even Hitler’s inside.”
“HITLER? Are you kidding me? Why!?”
“Vegetarian. That really counts for something up here. Also, God’s a huge Chaplin fan, and told me to fast track anyone with a toothbrush ‘stache.”
“Yes, so, seems to me like everything’s in order he- ooooooooooooh, hold the phone. Looks like you also once forced thirty middle schoolers to repeatedly dance Gangnam Style for hours on end, even after they began collapsing on the floor and begging you for mercy?”
“I- well- yeah, but- my boss, she made me keep pr-”
“Oh, your BOSS, huh?. So, what, you don’t have free will? You think doing terrible things just because someone told you to is an excuse? HA, well, you can tell that to all the Nazi war criminals down in hell!”
“But you just said Hitler-”
“RE-JEC-TEEEEEDDD!!!” And with the pull of a lever I find myself careening down into a subterranean abyss of lava, baijiu and chicken lungs.
The week leading up to the pageant, Joyce was struck with all kinds of OOH SUDDEN GREAT IDEAs, one of which was: “BRANDON! You play the guitar. Bring your guitar to the pageant, and you can play Jingle Bells while the students sing it!”
I started to protest, because I don’t know how to play jingle bells, but then I realized: it’s Jingle Bells. It’s not like she’s asking me for a Mozart recital. I can probably pick on a few backing chords fairly easily.
Two nights before the pageant, she was struck again: “BRANDON! I want you to give a speech.”
“A speech? About…what?”
“Oh, you know… teaching, or… your life, or China, or…whatever! Up to you. Just go out and speak for about three minutes.”
“Okay…I guess I can come up with something…”
Which I did, Saturday morning at around 7 a.m. At 8 a.m., I grabbed my guitar and a sheet full of scribbled speech notes, and headed for the school. The students arrived, we lined them up, did a head count, and marched them across the city to the same damn stadium where I had suffered my Hokey Pokey Kindergarten debacle two weeks prior. This stadium will likely continue making appearances in my nightmares for some time to come.
As we ran through a quick pageant practice, Joyce was…you guessed it. Struck again: “BRANDON! The students are going to sing Jingle Bells along to a CD track. So you go out on stage by yourself first, play your version of Jingle Bells, and then we’ll open the curtain and the students will sing.”
“You don’t want me to play…WITH them? But, I… I only learned the accompaniment part, it’s just a few backing chords, not the actual melody, so it really isn’t something th-”
“OH, it’s fine,” she interrupted, with a wave of her hand. “Just go out and play it.”
“Okay…” Jesus, if that’s isn’t going to be my goddamned tombstone epitaph.
1987- 2187 (I’m optimistic)
Or at least what I should have printed on the mat outside my apartment’s front door. Because apparently that’s what I am: a doormat.
So the parents arrived, the pageant began, and then… an opener by yours truly. Yeah, check me out, shreddin’ on these Mickey Mouse open position chords. BAM! G Major! Are your minds BLOWN yet!? Wooooo-eee, quick change to C Major! Feel the heat!
If I were in disillusioned America, this performance would not have flown. “Look at this showboating doofus. Sooo impressive…” But I was in China, the land where anyone able to even hold a guitar properly is lauded with praise. So it actually went alright.
The kids sang, Joyce stepped out to speak, and I returned backstage to nervously pace and go over the speech in my head.
Applause erupted. Her speech was finished. She poked her head back inside the curtain. “Okay, your turn. Oh, and BRANDON!”
ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME-
“Give your speech in Chinese. If there’s anything you don’t know how to say, I’ll translate for you.”
“What??? I thought you were going to translate the whole thing for me! No, no, I can’t- I don’t know how to- my Chinese isn’t-”
“Your Chinese is really good. Just go out and try, it’ll be fine.”
I swallowed hard and stepped out before the mass of awaiting parents. Some of them raised their eyebrows, or pointed, and quite a few yanked out cell phones to snag pics and video of the OOOoooooh FOREIGNER teacher. For a moment, I thought about giving it a go in Chinese, and imagined stuttering through broken sentences for three minutes and sounding like a complete idiot. “Hello, Brandon name is, I. Teach English your offspring, very good pineapple absolutely you know? Yes, of course. China though. Ha ha.” (Okay, so my Chinese isn’t THAT bad). I took a deep breath, looked at Joyce, and then realized: Actually, you know what? No. Fuck that, I’m speaking in English.
And so I gave my speech in English as I had planned, which basically boiled down to “I love China, China is great, your children are the most brilliant fucking creatures to have ever graced me with their presence” and blah blah blah pandering annnnd… end with a joke. “Finally, I can eat your unbelievably spicy Hunan cuisine without crying!” Zing! Laughter and applause. And so I stepped off the stage, my head swollen with some newly recovered self-worth.
“Actually, you know what? No. Fuck that, I’m speaking in English.”
After that was a very looooong and drawn out ceremony. Eleven performances, plus speeches, plus awards all added up to nearly three hours. Parents began leaving before it was even over. (See, I told you, even adults can’t sit still for that long without Kate Winslet’s boobs to hold their attention). The awards section started out pretty epic. The main Star Wars theme blasted from the speakers, courtesy of China’s total lack of intellectual property rights, as the kids ran out across the stage and lined up in wait. And one by one, Joyce and Nick presented them with…pen refills.
You read that right. Fucking ballpoint pen refills.
NO. Just, no. You cannot hype us all up with Star Wars music and promises of awards and then dole out office supplies. That’s not how this works, guys. Would you expect any sane human being to be excited by a pen refill? Do you envision them all rushing offstage and congregating in a circle to show off their prizes?
“What’d you get???”
“OOOH, wanna trade?”
“HA, as if! I wouldn’t part with this baby for anything!”
I wouldn’t be surprised if Santa Claus was watching our pageant from afar and ponderously stroking his beard, before turning excitedly to his elven secretary.
“Take this down. I’ve been thinking about our naughty children, and coal just isn’t cutting it. No, I think I have a muuuch better idea…”
There actually were better prizes in store for other students, and the top test scorers in each grade went home with either a teddy bear or a FREAKIN’ GUNDAM WING MODEL, awww mannn why do the students get Gundams, I wannnt onnnne…
And with the end of that pageant, my first semester in China was over. It was a wild ride, and also sometimes a calm one, full of ups, downs, places in between, memorable events, forgettable events, life-changing experiences, unaffecting experiences, and all the other things that are supposed to happen while living abroad. The end.
“But wait!” You say. “You promised us penises! You established a framing device and everything! And what about that 'Doo Doo Extravaganza' tagline this month? There was nary a poo to be found!”
To which I say: good things come to those who wait. And by things I mean dingalings.
Also, the fact that this letter is coming four days past the deadline may have reminded you of a similar universal truth: Mediocre things also come to those who wait.
In conclusion: this is page 15. That’s a pretty damn long email. And while I was really hoping to tie everything up here and end my letter series by going out with a very poopy bang, I suppose you’ll be hearing from me again next month after all. Spoiler alert: there really is a lot of doo doo involved. And also the penises. So, you know...always nice to have something to look forward to. Until then,
All the best,